Stickman Readers' Submissions August 15th, 2009

Snack Attack

My memory these days is pretty spotty…at best! Don’t ask me what my cell phone number is, because I can’t for the life of me remember the damned thing. Hell, I have to write a note to remind me to look at a note I wrote earlier in the day! My mind is a cluttered attic room that needs a thorough spring cleaning. Important information is buried beneath commercial jingles, TV themes songs and other such useless trivia from my childhood in the 1950’s. I do recall though a phrase from a guide book about Thailand: “Thais are inveterate snackers”. I suppose one of the reasons this has stuck in my mind is that every day I see Thais shoveling in food like as if starvation was just around the corner. I think anyone who has spent much time here in The Land of Smiles will agree that Thais do seem to spend an inordinate amount of time either eating. At home, at work, on the go, and in the street, food seems to come before anything else…and I do mean anything!

When it’s lunch time, everything, no matter how pressing, no matter how critical, grinds to halt. How many of you have had this experience? You’ve been waiting in line for hours at a government ministry office. Let’s say…Thai Immigration, since we’ve all spent wayyyyy too much time queuing up there! You’ve stood there patiently. Patience is most definitely a virtue when waiting for paper shufflers to do whatever they do and of course in their own sweet time. Finally though, you’ve made it to the front of the line. You are actually the last person that needs to be taken care of. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to have the Thai official to take care of your minor bit of business. In your dreams! No such luck my friend, ‘cause its lunch time! Your entireties to Somsak (or Somporn as the case may be) fall on deaf ears. No, you will have to sit down and wait for at least an hour…maybe more, until Khun Bureaucrat’s hunger has been satisfied…and like an aristocratic lady at her toilette, that is not something to be rushed! Welcome to Thailand!

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Last year I spent many hours at the local police station, while the Boys in Brown pretended to work on a car accident case that I was in involved in. I won’t go into the details of that farce here. If you’re interested in that little debacle, read The Wheels of Justice. In the middle of everything, though came lunch. I was left to sit and twiddle my thumbs for what seemed forever while Thailand’s Finest took their sweet time eating…and eating…and eating. I, the mere Farang wasn’t even offered a glass of water.

Here though is a truly classic story that sums up the Thai preoccupation with lunch. After my wife and I decided to move to Thailand, I started researching information about obtaining a visa. I was after all planning to live to live here, and I wanted to get “all my ducks in a row” before actually showing up here. At that time there was very little information available online. Being the naïve person I can be sometimes, I decided to call the Thai embassy in Washington. Surely the folks there could enlighten me, right? So here I am phone in one hand and a list of questions in the other. “Ring-ring ring-ring” The phone is picked up at what I presumed was the Thai embassy, but before I could get out more than “hello”, a Thai voice blurts out (in not a very friendly manner I might add), “We eat lunch now. You call back later!” Click. WTF I thought! This person had no idea who I was or why I was calling. I might have been someone from the State Department calling on important official business. “Sir or Madame, I thought you might want to know that a small asteroid has crashed into Bangkok!” Even if that had indeed been the case, in the balance of priorities, Armageddon versus a bowl of noodles and a plate of som-tam, lunch would win out every time!

So, what is for lunch…and breakfast, and dinner…and for just general snacking? Every guide book and website about Thailand I’ve ever seen waxes lyrically about Thai cuisine. You would think, based on what you read, and the lovely pictures you see, that Thai food is: highly varied in taste and presentation, and healthy to boot! Perhaps…sometimes…but most of the time perhaps not. It has only been on a relatively few occasions that I have had a meal truly worthy of mention. By that I mean the kind of feast you see pictured in guidebooks or glossy travel magazines, but my some of the simpler meals I’ve had here rival anything I’ve ever had.

I must admit though that I am picky about what I eat, and have been since I was a wee spout. Perhaps that is because my dear departed mother, lovely soul that she was, was a truly abominable cook. Perhaps that’s why I eventually went through a demanding course of instruction at the CIA. Not that CIA! I mean The Culinary Institute of America, which I believe is the equal of any cooking school in the world. The reason I came to Thailand initially was to learn something about Thai cooking. That is a long story which if you are in the mood for something to put you to sleep, you can read about in my very first submission: How it All Began (part 1) Suffice it to say that on that trip I met the young woman who I would eventually marry.

I do then have a rather personal connection to Thai food. My first meals here were extraordinary. They were full of flavors I had never experienced before. Do you remember your first bowl of Tom Yom Koong, or plate of Som Tam? Not exactly what you would call bland, eh? How about your first fresh coconut, mangosteen, or mango? Just the thought of a plateful of Gai Yang and some sticky rice makes me hungry.

That being said though, my initial enthusiasm for the Thai flavor palette has faded over the years. A lot of the food I see offered day to day frankly bores me. Much of it all seems to taste the same…and unfortunately much of it is ever so slightly toxic.

Sanitation has never been a major concern for Thais, so don’t expect that the lady preparing your lunch has washed her hands with soap and water after using the toilet. Don’t expect that any prepared food you buy in a market won’t send you running for a toilet later on. My wife, like many Thais is a fan of take –home food. She also has many more intestinal bouts than I do, because I simply refuse to eat anything that has been sitting around for God knows how long in the heat of the day.

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I don’t know about you, but although I enjoy the flavor of Thai ingredients like lemongrass, coconut milk and chilies, I absolutely loathe the taste (and smell) of nam-bpla, or fish sauce. Such an innocent sounding name: fish sauce. Unfortunately this is made from fermented (read rotten) fish. Just of the thought of it turn my delicate stomach. Unfortunately Thais put the damned stuff in or on everything. You just can’t escape it, though I try my best to. I’m used to funny looks when I tell a Som Tam lady, “mai nam-bpla khap”!

Taste is such a relative thing. The thought of a particular food may have a person from one culture salivating with anticipation, while making someone from another gag uncontrollably. The Thais, who look at me strangely for not liking fish sauce, look at me with disgust when I tell them how much I enjoy Indian food. Why I think they’d rather go and eat bugs…ooops, Thais actually do enjoy snacking on them. I know it really is a cultural predisposition on my part, but I will pass on the creepy-crawlies, thank you very much. Everyone generally enjoys the food they grew up with. That being said, although I want my little Sam to enjoy things that may not appeal to me, I have drawn the line with bugs. I have actually forbidden my wife…and that’s something I lightly do, to feed him anything that might crawl out from the bottom of a rock!

When most people think of Thailand, and what Thais eat, rice is probably the first thing that comes to mind. I had had plenty of Jasmine Rice, long before my first visit here, but never even heard of Sticky Rice until visiting my future in-laws in Buriram. I’d never seen it on the menu of a Thai restaurant in America. I now prefer it over any other variety. Unfortunately it is waaay to easy to consume too much of it. One bite usually
leads to the next…and the next…and the next!

Unless you’ve spent some time here, you might not believe the quantities of noodles Thais eat. From casual observation, noodle soup is one of the most popular dishes for Thais, and folks eat it for breakfast lunch and dinner. If you were dropped blindfolded into any Thai settlement, no matter how remote or tiny, chances are the first person you would encounter would be a noodle vendor! I’ve eaten more than my share of the stuff, both good and bad! While it is possible to find a “soup lady” that has prepared a delicious chicken broth, it is equally possible to be served something that tastes like dish water. It’s the luck of the draw I’m afraid.

I’ve wandered a bit from what I actually set out to talk about in this piece, which is what Thais eat between meals. Yes those “inveterate snackers” are constantly on the prowl for something to hold them over until their next meal. This is especially true for students at my school. From Kindergarteners to High School seniors, these kids are hungry all the time. A flight of ravenous locusts don’t hold a candle to these guys. I know they are “growing kids” and all that, but it seems that they are eating something every moment of the day and night. A lot of children eat breakfast
in our cafeteria. There the hard working staff labors mightily to produce enough food to keep them from fainting until lunchtime. Not surprisingly, noodle soup is slurped up, along with fried rice, skewers of grilled pork, and omelets. Thais don’t
really have any special breakfast foods, except perhaps Khao Tom (rice porridge). I do see from time to time people frying up a type of unsweetened doughnut, eaten with hot soy milk. They’re not bad really.

Come mid-morning break, kids make a dash to the school’s “mini-mart”, where they quickly buy and devourer everything from cookies and ice cream to dried seaweed and what I call “fish jerky”.

Once again, it must be a cultural thing, but I will pass on those two items. I suppose it is healthy though. Surprisingly, although this shop sells all kinds of beverages, it does not sell soda, which I think is a sound idea. Do these kids need any more empty calories? I think not.

Thais do seem to drink a lot of green tea, but usually go for the sweetened variety.

It is estimated that 15-20% of Thai youngsters are seriously overweight. I certainly see plenty of fatties. Most of them seem to be boys, although girls aren’t exempt from this condition by any means. There are many reasons for this explosion in obesity. Many children spend much too long playing computers games or watching TV and not enough time just running around. Then there is the universal phenomenon of Thai mothers believing that their children are malnourished. “Somchai! Why haven’t you finished that third helping of fried pork bellies? Don’t you know there are children starving in (name the poverty stricken country of your choice) who would do anything for that!” Sound familiar?

The truth is that the caloric intake of many Thai children is pretty damned high. The ready availability of inexpensive junk food doesn’t help. Ah, junk food; one of our more dubious contributions to world health. This may be Thailand, but the international “food” conglomerates know no borders or boundaries. Hence the shelves of 7-11 are overflowing with Snickers, Coca Cola and Lays potato chips…although in a sop to “regional tastes” the later are available in flavors like Thai Chili Paste, Barbecued Prawn, and Seaweed! Then there are a myriad of snacks manufactures right here in Thailand. The primary ingredients for most of these include the usual suspects: sugar, salt, a host of “flavorings and enhancers” (chemicals that you need a doctorate degree just to pronounce!) and of course fat. Lots and lots of fat…usually the least expensive…and least healthy kinds, like palm oil.

Oh the Thais love anything deep fried. The local KFC does a booming business. I am not immune to the siren call of the deep fryer. I enjoy a bag of fried bananas or a plate of fried chicken as well as the next man. I try however not to live exclusively on fattening foods. Ironically, when a teenager, I was thin as a rail. I mean skinny! I actually used to take food supplements to gain weight! They worked…although they took 30 years to kick in! I eat far less than my svelte tee-rak, but where as she can eat and eat without gaining an ounce, all I have to do is inhale deeply to resemble the Michelin Man. Well, not quite that bad, although I would dearly love to lose a few pounds.

These particular chicken vendors are all over Lampang. I don’t know if this franchise is in any other part of Thailand. In addition to fried chicken, they make some very nice rotisserie chicken. Perhaps too nice!

Getting back to the between meal eating habits of my students, up until now I’ve only dealt with mere “grazing”. With the end of the school day comes the really serious snacking. Next door to every school in Thailand, across the street, and outside the gates, a phalanx of food vendors has been setting up carts in anticipation of what is come; a virtual flood of hungry students. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of hungry students, with fists stuffed with money and stomachs waiting to be stuffed with just about anything you care to imagine. A few days ago, camera in hand, I set out to document a moment or two of this feeding frenzy.

Why Thais love these rubbery meatballs is beyond me. I mean it’s not as though they are home-made. Every stinking vendor in Thailand buys these pallid tasteless balls frozen, in industrial sized bags. Maybe it’s the sauce they put on them. In any case, kids cannot get enough of theme. The same meatballs find their way into soup. Whenever I eat soup, I always take a pass on them. I can do without Thai “hotdogs” as well.

Once again I know it’s a matter of taste, but I just don’t care for them. Besides, isn’t it a gastronomic rule that hot dogs must be eaten nestled in a hot dog bun, with mustard, and/or, onions, relish, chili, or sauerkraut? Notice that I left out ketchup! That condiment belongs on hamburgers and French fries!

There are many people around the world who have developed a taste for sushi. Not being a cooked fish lover, I will pass on the raw stuff. Even if I did like sushi, I would be hesitant to eat anything from this cart, seeing as none of the trays were on ice and the afternoon was hot as hell. Can you spell salmonella children?

Here is something Japanese more to my liking! Actually I have no idea if these things originated in Japan, but folks here refer to them as “Japanese Crepes”. They are thin, crispy confections filled with jelly, chocolate, sweetened condensed milk and a host of other things.

The “ice cream man” may be only a memory back in my former homeland, but he is alive and well here in Thailand…and doing one hell of a business. It’s not surprising, considering the weather. It’s not unusual to see kids eating ice cream long before mid day. There are at least three companies in town: Nestle, Walls, and Magnolia. All of the drivers are smartly uniformed. Some play catchy little tunes as they zip around town with their motorcycle carts. I have to wonder why though someone chose the Mexican Hat Dance as a theme song.

What’s a good snack, without something to wash it down? Never fear! There are always a plethora of drink vendors on hand to satisfy your thirst!

You may have noticed that Thais love bright colors. That goes double for their drinks. Many of these day glow confections undoubtedly can glow in the dark. What is the Daily Minimum Requirement for shocking blue dye # 1219?

Want to combine something to nosh with something to drink? Try one of these. I wish I had a better picture of this one. It contains, as far as I could see, fluorescent jelly and candy, and was topped with sweet black beans. Yum!

Not to your taste? How about one of these strange looking concoctions? Actually the milky looking one with the green string like things is okay. I know the green “stuff” looks unappetizing, up relax, but it’s only tapioca! Isn’t that one of the reasons you came to Thailand? To have new and unusual experiences? Speaking of unusual. Try some of the dark beverage if you want something really different. It is called grass jelly, and is definitely an acquired taste!

I think I am this woman’s # 1 customer. Ah, there’s nothing like fresh squeeze orange juice with lots of ice…except perhaps for some fresh sliced fruit!

Anyone who’s read my submissions probably knows that I have a strange sense of humor. Not as strange as Dana, but he is the master of that piquant art! In any case I save this photo for last.

Little Miss Kitty seems to pitching a galaxy of tasty beverages…but inquiring minds want to know, where into which orifice is her straw supposed to go? Speculation on that topic will have to wait for another time.

Stickman's thoughts:

Very nice indeed. I have to admit that as I become more careful about what I put into my body and have become more aware of nutrition and what not, when I see what some of these Thai kids consume – and even what many older Thais eat – I wonder if there will be some sort of diabetes explosion here. It seems that there is sugar in just about everything – and for many it is a case of the more sugar, the better!

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